Sport Rugby

Monday 20 November 2017

Foreign investments must pay dividends

Provinces' overseas coaches under pressure to prove their worth

Andrew Crowley (right) and James Downey pull no punches during Munster's training session at the Cork Institute of Technology yesterday
Andrew Crowley (right) and James Downey pull no punches during Munster's training session at the Cork Institute of Technology yesterday
Pat Lam insists he does not feel any pressure from fans to deliver
Conor George

Conor George

THE influence of the southern hemisphere on Irish rugby has been a constant since the game turned professional in 1995.

Through the early years the chat in clubhouses of All-Ireland League teams on Saturday afternoons was punctuated by the ubiquitous "mate" as journeymen from primarily Australia and New Zealand picked up a sizeable wedge for their weekend activities.

It was rampant throughout the league as clubs, irrespective of the division they inhabited, bought into the misguided belief they needed a foreign accent in the dressing-room to lend some credibility to their ambitions.

Every so often an ambitious club threw up a Jason Holland – who arrived for a visit to Midleton in Cork yet stayed years and played for Ireland 'A' – but often during those early years a player of Holland's influence was the exception rather than the norm.

As Irish rugby grew more accustomed to professionalism, the four provinces were more discerning than the AIL clubs had been with their recruitment policies.

Instead of opening their arms to anyone from the southern hemisphere, they recruited quality players with the clubs retreating back to their amateur origins as the provincial franchises took on the professional mantle.

The success enjoyed by the three main provinces has given rise to an influx of foreign coaches and the fascination with all things south of the equator will be evident this weekend when all four Irish professional franchises are represented by foreign coaches.

The recruitment of Pat Lam by Connacht and the addition of Matt O'Connor by Leinster makes it a full house as they join Munster's Rob Penney and Ulster's Mark Anscombe in the system. Aussie O'Connor is the only non-Kiwi of the quartet.

When you add Joe Schmidt to the mix in his guise as Ireland head coach it makes for very uncomfortable reading if you're sitting in the offices at IRFU headquarters in Lansdowne Road.

There are some extenuating circumstances, of course. Schmidt, for example, was absolutely the right choice for the Ireland position. He was, even allowing for Conor O'Shea's achievements at Harlequins, the only choice.

It cannot be ideal, however, that there is no Irish presence among the five head coaching positions available in the professional game in Ireland. Some of the ancillary staffs are indigenous to Ireland but they are a scarcity in the professional game here.

Modicum

The pressure on those coaching Ireland's professional teams has never been greater than it is ahead of Friday's start to the new season. For the first time in the professional era, all four teams will be expected to deliver some modicum of success.

Connacht have traditionally been exempt from the high expectations of the other provinces but all that is set to change this season. Twelve players have left the Sportsground, including their only international of last season, Mike McCarthy, but they have recruited very well.

Craig Clarke, the captain of the the Super XV-winning Chiefs, replaces McCarthy while other astute signings include returning winger Fionn Carr, James So'oiallo and flanker Jake Heenan, who has captained the New Zealand U-20s.

Connacht finished in eighth position in the Pro12 last season and must show the ambition to better that. They have shown in the last couple of seasons that they are capable of taking big scalps on occasion in Europe.

Harlequins and Biarritz learned that the hard way. One-off victories will no longer suffice for Connacht. They must show more consistency if they are to move on to the next level of their evolution.

No one knows what the rugby landscape will look like at the end of the season, with changes regarding qualification for the Heineken Cup likely to be imposed in a compromise with the English and French unions.

The need for Connacht to show a capacity to stand on their own is enormous and the pressure on Lam to deliver after his appointment ahead of confirmed interest from Eddie O'Sullivan is immense.

Anscombe must also deliver for Ulster this season. The jettisoning of Brian McLaughlin after a season when he guided Ulster to their first Heineken Cup final since 1999 for Anscombe is still a mystery.

Ulster didn't make it past the quarter-finals of the competition last season but did, at least, contest the final of the Pro12.

Leinster are now the standard bearers for Irish rugby. Their record of three Heineken Cups, one Amlin Challenge Cup and three domestic leagues in the pro era, along with their reputation as the most consistent team in the competition – 10 finishes in the top four – is beyond compare.

The departures of Schmidt, Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa will have an impact and the integration of O'Connor and his ideas will take time but word from the Leinster base is overwhelmingly positive and confidence in O'Connor is absolute.

The Leinster players know that they need to continue to evolve, grow and improve if they are to maximise their talents. They have welcomed the subtle additions O'Connor has been introducing to their game while appreciating his acknowledgement of the core values of the squad that brought them success in the first place.

If O'Connor can achieve some of the success Schmidt engineered then it will be a hugely successful season for Leinster on both fronts.

Munster are the toughest team to read ahead of the opening weekend of matches. They have lost two irreplaceable players in Ronan O'Gara and Doug Howlett and recruitment has been limited by of a lack of spending power.

South African winger Gerhard van den Heever could turn out to be a canny piece of business but it's not certain when he will arrive and, as Penney confirmed yesterday, he may not get here in time to be registered for their Heineken Cup campaign.

Munster were the surprise package in last season's Heineken Cup with their run to the semi-final and, as long as they have warriors like Paul O'Connell and Conor Murray driving them, they will always demand respect.

All four professional teams have undergone fundamental change during the off-season and it is logical to expect a period of inconsistency while new players are absorbed into the systems.

Hopefully they will have hurried that process along for the demands of the moment are critical, with every result important. The opening series should tell a lot.

Irish Independent

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